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‘It’s amazing how fast things change’: Utah State experienced a wide range of emotions during 2019-20 season

Utah State’s head coach Craig Smith celebrates with his team after defeating San Diego State in an NCAA college basketball game for the Mountain West Conference men’s tournament championship Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Las Vegas.
Isaac Brekken, AP

LOGAN — You better believe that the final shot of Sam Merrill’s majestic college career will never be forgotten by Aggie basketball fans.

And yet, whenever Merrill’s game-winning 3-pointer against fifth-ranked San Diego State is recounted sometime in the distant future, you can be sure that a moment of silence will follow. An unspoken asterisk, if you will, that will lead into an explanation of how Utah State’s 2019-20 season came to an abrupt and difficult end before the Aggies could potentially extend their magical run in the NCAA Tournament.

But even looking back now, the handful of days between USU’s 59-56 upset of the Aztecs in the championship game of the Mountain West Conference tournament on March 7, and the cancellation of the NCAA tourney on March 12 due concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, have a Dickensesque quality to them for it was certainly, “the best of times” and “the worst of times” for the Aggies and their fans.

Utah State’s Sam Merrill (5) sinks a 3-point shot as San Diego State’s KJ Feagin defends during final seconds of an NCAA college basketball game for the Mountain West Conference men’s tournament championship Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Las Vegas.
Isaac Brekken, AP

“It’s amazing how fast things change. You experience about every range of emotion,” USU head coach Craig Smith told Aggie play-by-play man Scott Garrard earlier this week on 1280 The Zone radio.

“Our hearts go out to our players for sure; so much empathy that goes into it. And just the range of emotion. It has been pretty incredible, and it’s just amazing how fast things change in less than a week’s time.”

Of course, Utah State’s season started out along the lines of a different Charles Dickens’ novel — “Great Expectations” — thanks to the Aggies having Smith, Merrill and center Neemias Queta back for another run at a second straight Mountain West title.

But a couple months after Queta, the 2019 MW Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year, pulled his name out of consideration for the NBA draft, he suffered a serious knee injury while playing in an international tournament in Europe for his native Portugal. But even with Queta’s status uncertain, the Aggies still became the first unanimous selection in conference history to win the Mountain West and were ranked No. 17 in the AP Top 25 preseason poll.

As it turns out, Queta did return ... eventually. But even without him, Utah State was still really good in nonconference play.

Thanks to Merrill and the continued emergence of sophomore forward Justin Bean, the Aggies opened the season 7-0, including an impressive 80-78 victory over LSU after trailing by 19 points. USU’s first setback of the season came at Saint Mary’s on Nov. 29, but the team got a huge shot in the arm a week later when Queta finally returned, logging 10 minutes in an overtime victory over Fresno State.

Even with Merrill and several other Aggies battling ankle issues, Utah State went on to win six out of seven games in December, the lone blemish being a four-point loss to BYU at Vivint Arena and the high point being a 65-62 win over Florida.

“It was definitely a different season,” Merrill said. “We started with very high expectations, and we had very high expectations as a team. We got off to a pretty good start, but it just never ... it felt different.

“Part of it was not having Neemie and his injuries, and then a couple of us got hurt during the preseason and that made it tough. We had a really good nonconference, but then started 2020 really rough.”

Utah State center Neemias Queta (23) looks to pass the ball as Fresno State forward Nate Grimes (32) defends during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Logan, Utah.
Eli Lucero, AP

Just three days after putting up 129 points against Eastern Oregon despite having Merrill and Queta on the bench, “rough” arrived on New Year’s night in Sin City when UNLV buried the Aggies, 70-53. An eight-point loss to San Diego State a few days later wasn’t totally unexpected considering that the Aztecs were undefeated and emerging as one of the best teams in the country. But when Air Force crushed Utah State, 79-60, in the Aggies’ next game, the doubts certainly started to flow, especially considering that during his USU debut in 2018-19, Smith never even lost back-to-back games while guiding Utah State to a 28-7 record.

“We were definitely not at 100%, and I think that really affected us,” Merrill said. “Not necessarily on the court, although it did obviously, but I think it affected us mentally and emotionally, as well. We weren’t playing Utah State basketball for about a week and a half, and a lot of people lost faith in us. I know a lot of fans lost faith in us, but we just continued to work.

“I met with coach after our loss at Air Force, and he said, ‘Hey, is there like something going on chemistry-wise? Are our guys not buying in?’” Merrill continued. “And I just said, ‘No, we have a ton of high-character guys; guys with a lot of pride and guys that like to do things the right way. But right now, it’s just not working.’

“And to be honest, I’m not sure he even believed me at that point. But I was sure that we had the right guys in our system, and it turned out to be true.”

Utah State coach Craig Smith talks with his players during the second half against San Jose State in an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, in San Jose, Calif.
Tony Avelar, AP

Knowing that they had very little room for error to still be considered for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, the Aggies responded by winning 10 of their next 12 games. Smith’s crew even battled on after blowing a 14-point lead with less than four minutes to go at Boise State, reestablishing their postseason hopes and securing a No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.

One final blip, a potentially devastating 66-64 loss at New Mexico in their regular-season finale certainly could have derailed the Aggies’ season. But with Merrill leading the way, Utah State quickly turned things around and beat the Lobos in their first game of the MW tourney before holding off Wyoming and shocking San Diego State to repeat as conference champions.

Appropriately enough, Merrill delivered the final blow, a deep 3 with 2.5 seconds left, to seemingly secure a second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.

At the time, it seemed fortuitous that the Mountain West tourney had been moved up a week in order to accommodate a massive convention in Las Vegas, only because it gave the Aggies a little more time to rest and celebrate. But by the following Wednesday, the NCAA announced it would play tournament games without fans, and just about 24 hours later, the entire tournament was canceled.

The Aggies were just in the process of gathering for practice at the Spectrum when the unfortunate news came down on March 12 that their record would stand at 26-8.

“It was one of those moments where I just remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when the NCAA made that announcement that all championships were going to be canceled,” Smith told Garrard about having to the break the news to his team.

“... Man, you can’t even describe every range of emotion that we went through. You’ve got someone like Sam Merrill, whom I have never seen shed a tear, and there were a lot of tears with him.”

Of course, because the conference tourney was played earlier than normal, Merrill and the Aggies did get their moment of “March Madness” — a moment that no other team in the country experienced to that degree before COVID-19 shut down the entire sports world.

“Obviously, I wish there was more to it and wish there were other opportunities, but with hindsight and knowing what we know now, it was a perfect way to go out,” Merrill said. “For me personally and for us as a team, to be on one of the best teams in the country and win a conference championship that we were able to celebrate together, like I said, we wish there was more, but it’s the perfect way.”

Merrill’s immortal 3-pointer against the Aztecs left him with 2,197 points for his Aggie career, leaving him behind only Jaycee Carroll on USU’s all-time scoring list. Merrill, who will turn 24 in May, will leave a hole impossible fill on next year’s roster, while senior guard Diogo Brito is also graduating and junior guard Abel Porter announced this week that he has put his name in the transfer portal after already earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Utah State.

In addition, Queta could leave to pursue a professional career, and Smith will certainly be courted by other universities after winning 54 games in his two seasons in Logan. Major contributors like forwards Bean and Alphonso Anderson, guards Brock Miller and Sean Bairstow and center Trevin Dorius and Kuba Karwowski are slated to return, and junior Marco Anthony will be eligible after transferring from Virginia. But who really knows what the Aggie basketball program might look like come this fall?

But while you certainly can’t say that Merrill is leaving completely fulfilled, the kid from Bountiful who grew up an Aggie fan, is undeniably leaving away with the USU basketball program in a better place than he found it.

“The first two years were tough: we weren’t as good as we wanted to be,” Merrill said. “And a lot of guys when their team isn’t very good or things don’t go their way, they just transfer and that’s the easy things now days. But for me and Diogo and Abel and Justin and Brock — those guys were on those two previous teams — we felt like we could do something and be successful here.

“We put in the work, and we had obviously had two great years. Two of the greatest years that Utah State has had. So, for me personally, to learn how to fight through adversity while playing for a school that I love has been a special experience.”